holiday buying advice pt. 3
Note: The focus of this post will be the first-time DSLR buyer.
Chances are, if you’re interested in a DSLR, it’s for one or more of the following reasons…
- higher quality images
- more creative control
- interchangeable lenses
Here are a few of the main considerations when comparing DSLR cameras…
DSLRs can rage in price from about $450-8000. You can find a DSLR with a pretty good feature set and a basic lens for $600-800.
As discussed in the intro, megapixels refer only to the size of the image, not quality. Most of the DSLRs currently coming out are between 12-18 megapixels. 12 is really more than sufficient for most people. The megapixel count really isn’t much of a selling point anymore. Keep in mind that the DSLR has a significantly larger image sensor that an point-and-shoot, so even if they have the same megapixel count, a DSLR has greater quality.
Many DSLRs now have video. If you want to save a little cash, you can choose one without. I find it to be worth the money for capturing family moments. It’s nice not having to buy another camera.
Most of the cameras that offer video have 1080p resolution. Some only offer 720p. 1080p is nice, sure, but keep in mind the files will be bigger, which means that it will fill up your memory cards and your computer hard drive faster. For example, shooting 1080p video on one of my DSLRs takes up about 1GB of storage for every 4 minutes of video.
RAW File Format
RAW files are uncompressed images. Most people are familiar with, and most cameras shoot images in, jpeg format. This is a compressed format that keeps file sizes small. However, there is a certain amount of quality lost in compression. Most people won’t notice or care, but for those who want the best quality, RAW offers uncompressed images. If you’ve ever fretted about which white balance setting to choose, RAW eliminates this concern. You can change the white balance when editing the image on the computer and you don’t lose any quality. It’s as if you shot the image in that white balance.
RAW give you more latitude to fix an image that is over or underexposed. It also provides a much better quality high ISO image. If you’re not familiar with ISO, in DSLRs it’s the sensitivity of the image sensor. Without getting technical, low numbers (100) are higher quality images, but take longer to expose. In low light, higher numbers (1600, 3200, 6400) give faster exposures, but the tradeoff is that the higher the number, the more “noise” or “grain” you get on the image.
The downside of RAW is a much larger file. It can be 2-3x larger. But just because a camera has RAW available, doesn’t mean you have to use it all the time. Maybe you choose to shoot images of your family Christmas party in jpeg, but you shoot RAW on your trip to the Grand Canyon. A nice feature that some DSLRs offer is the ability to shoot in different size RAW files, which I use a lot. I don’t always need a full 21 megapixel image, so at times I’ll shoot on MRAW (medium RAW), which is 10 megapixels and half the file size.
Live View and Articulated LCD
Live View means that you can use the LCD as a viewfinder while you’re shooting. Many cameras now have this feature. I find it helpful in low light when the autofocus has trouble. Articulated LCD means that the screen folds out from the back of the camera and rotates in multiple directions. This can be helpful if you want to shoot from high or low angles like holding the camera up over your head or setting it on the ground.
This is how many frames (photos) per second the camera can take. It can range from ~2-10 fps. This number is more important for things like shooting sports. A higher frame rate can increase your chances of getting great action shots. It’s also helpful for photographing wildlife.
Build Quality and Size
Cameras are made out of different materials. Some cameras offer a magnesium alloy and steel construction, which is very rugged and durable. These tend to be the more expensive cameras. Others have a resin-coated steel frame, which is sturdy, but not quite as strong.
Different models are also different sizes. Some are more compact, which is nice for travel, but can be awkward to use for people who are used to a full size camera. I think the weight and feel of a camera are important factors, so it’s best to get a hands on demo before buying.
Any lens that comes packaged with a DSLR isn’t that great. To be clear, they’re probably 10x better than a point-and-shoot camera lens, but in the grand scheme of lenses, they’re at the bottom. Unless you have some previous experience with SLR cameras and know your personal lens preferences, I would recommend just getting the packaged lens. The reason being is that as you start gaining experience, you’ll think things to yourself like, “I wish I could zoom in a little (or a lot) more,” or, “It would be nice to get photos in low light without flash.” These thoughts will help you find what lenses you’ll want in the future. Also, you might buy a camera thinking you’re going to like shooting one subject, like landscapes, but decide you like prefer another, like portraits.
Here are a few lens recommendations for different types of shooting…
Portraits - 50mm f/1.8 – This lens gets great bokah (background blur) which helps the subject to really pop from the surroundings. Both Canon and Nikon offer this lens for around $100, which is as cheap as you can get for a new lens that is any good.
Sports - 70-200mm – A great versatile sports lens, this will get you through all levels of sports for your kids. I try to avoid “megazoom” lenses (i.e. 28-300) because the minimum aperture is so high (f/5.6 or f/6.3), that they’re practically worthless in low light (including evening games). Canon offers four versions of the 70-200. F/4, with and without image stabilization (IS), and f/2.8 with and without IS. These range in price from about $600-2000. Yes, even the cheapest of these is expensive, but it you’re going to be shooting a lot of sports it’s worth the investment. A solid lens will last for decades and will be compatible with future cameras.
There are a number of other telephoto zoom lenses you can buy, but whatever you go with, I would recommend getting one that stays at f/4 or wider (a lower number). Image stabilization is great to have on a telephoto lens, and I wouldn’t buy one without it, but be aware that IS doesn’t help with shooting sports action.
Candids – It’s good to have a nice wide-angle for candid shots. It’s nice not having to keep stepping back to try to fit everyone in the frame. Most DSLRs come with a wide zoom as the kit lens (i.e. 18-55mm). Eventually you might want to replace the kit lens with a higher quality lens, or one that has a little more range to it (24-105mm), but try it out for a bit and see how you feel.
There are plenty of other features that may not apply to a beginner, but if you’re buying to learn, may be helpful to have. Higher end cameras can include: HDMI output, more custom functions/settings, full frame*, advanced light metering, faster autofocus, more autofocus points and higher available ISOs.
*The size of a frame of 35mm film is 24x36mm. Most DSLRs have sensors that are smaller than this size, which causes the lens to effectively be magnified. If interested, you can read the scientific explanation here. So, if you have a 50mm lens on a camera with a 1.5x crop factor, your lens effectively becomes a 75mm. It’s not so bad to have when shooting with a telephoto lens. Your 200mm essentially becomes a 300mm. But when a wide angle is desired, it can be an issue. Full frame DSLRs have sensors that are 24x36mm, so there is no crop factor.